With less than a year until the U.S. presidential election, opinions regarding immigration have been coming strong and fast from all angles. However, whether you support stricter laws or allowing more immigrants into the country, there is one side of the discussion not enough people are talking about: the long history of abuse and exploiting migrant workers for cheap labor — especially when it comes to the removal of asbestos from older buildings.
In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found there were 25.7 million foreign-born people in the U.S. labor force. This number includes anyone who was not a U.S. citizen or U.S. national when they were born — legal permanent residents, foreign students, refugees, and unauthorized immigrants. Though specific numbers for unauthorized immigrants are not available for 2014, Pew Research reported that in 2012, there were 8.1 million unauthorized immigrants either working or looking for work in our country.
Many companies have been caught hiring illegal immigrants — even those here legally, on visas — and placing them in dangerous situations.
Four illegal immigrants were fired in 2012 by Benjamin H. Realty, an apartment company in New Jersey. Why? They stood up to the company for forcing them to perform unsafe work.
“The worst thing was the asbestos,” said Isaac Hernandez, one of the workers.
Hernandez told Salon that he was “100% breathing this stuff in.” They worked in a tight crawl space without proper equipment and “we went with our clothes home, so not only were we exposed — our families were exposed.”
Another worker, Daniel Quintana, told Salon that at one point he had to remove asbestos with his bare hands and his supervisor assured him that it was nothing dangerous.
Asbestos: An Expensive Problem for Business Owners
Before 1980, asbestos – the naturally occurring mineral that is now known to be lethal – played a major role in buildings across the country. Previously hailed for its strength, resilience, and resistance to heat, asbestos was used in countless consumer products. Asbestos-containing materials could be found in insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing, pipes, boilers — it was truly an ideal addition to any structure or building.
Unfortunately, companies who manufactured asbestos-containing products knew asbestos could cause serious health problems. These companies chose to stay quiet in the interest of selling more products and making more money. The dangers of asbestos exposure did not become public knowledge and asbestos was not regulated until the 1970s. That means any buildings from that time or earlier likely still house certain asbestos-containing materials.
When asbestos is disturbed in some way — usually during renovations or construction — its fibers can be released into the air. This is when unprotected individuals in the general vicinity can inhale the fibers and become ill. Asbestos has been known to cause many different diseases, including mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer.
Due to the extreme dangers of asbestos exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has federal regulations in place that dictate how building owners and managers must go about managing asbestos-containing materials in buildings. The regulations are very specific, and there are many of them — but they are all in place to keep workers and the public safe.
Most companies and business owners understand why the federal regulations are in place, but at the end of the day, many find the rules to be a big, expensive headache. They know what they are supposed to do, but still try to skirt the law in an effort to save time and money. Saving lives, though? Not always a top priority — even for billionaire businessman and presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Donald Trump’s Past Legal Problems with Undocumented Immigrants
Donald Trump is very vocal about his negative feelings regarding illegal immigrants in our country, but back in 1980, he had no problem hiring them. Trump allegedly hired approximately 200 undocumented Polish workers to demolish the Bonwit Teller Building in New York City to make way for the construction of Trump Tower.
The Polish immigrants said that they had to work 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week, with no overtime pay. They made less than $5 an hour, and some fought to be paid at all. In addition to the unfair wages and hours, workers were forced into dangerous work conditions.
“We worked in horrid, terrible conditions,” Wojciech Kozak, one of the workers, told the New York Times in 1998. “We were frightened illegal immigrants and did not know enough about our rights.”
Mr. Kozak, and other immigrants hired to demolish the Bonwit Telling Building, said that they frequently worked in clouds of asbestos dust without any kind of protective equipment. Many have since died.
In 1983, a class-action lawsuit was filed by the workers and spent 16 years in court until the case was finally settled —and sealed — in 1999. It is unclear as to whether Mr. Trump has learned his lesson, but if one of his Tweets from 2012 is an indication, he doesn’t quite understand the dangers of asbestos yet:
“If we didn’t remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn’t work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down.”
Not only is Trump’s statement offensive — it’s gravely misinformed.
Asbestos in the Twin Towers, Illegal Immigrants, and the Threat of Deportation
Asbestos in spray fireproofing was banned in New York City in 1971, so the World Trade Center towers were only insulated with asbestos up to the 64th floor. The asbestos spray insulation was supposed to be able to delay the steel from melting up to 4 hours in the event of a fire. On 9/11, 1 World Trade Center lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes before collapsing, while 2 World Trade Center made it only 56 minutes.
So, while it’s possible that the towers could have stood longer if they had been fully insulated with asbestos, they still would have “burned down,” to quote Mr. Trump. And double the amount of asbestos would have been released into the air of lower Manhattan.
Many first responders have become ill over the years due to their exposure to asbestos and other hazardous substances — and that includes a long legacy of undocumented immigrants.
Mauricio Avila, and undocumented worker who helped following the events of 9/11, told the Huffington Post about his experience. Avila is quoted:
“They didn’t ask us what our immigration status was, they just said that they needed help and a lot of it. You’d find people working 12 hour shifts to clear the wreckage and bodies. I actually brought my own mask because I was a licensed asbestos worker and asked my supervisor what filter to use. He told me to put the mask away, and that the EPA had said the air was safe to breathe. I trusted him.”
Now, Avila has laryngitis, asthma, severe stomach problems, and sinusitis. His wife has all of the above, plus throat cancer. Luckily, he has been able to receive treatment at Mt. Sinai’s clinic for World Trade Center workers.
“If I was deported, I would not be able to receive treatment at the clinic,” said Mauricio. “Currently I am on a lot of different medications that help keep me alive: if I was sent back to Ecuador, I would not be able to get them.”
The Exploitation of Migrant Workers
Companies may seek out undocumented immigrant workers for a variety of reasons. However, the most popular excuses are that illegal immigrants tend to work harder and longer, the employer deals with less turnover, and the employer can get away with paying less money.
Also, when it comes to asbestos removal, some employers feel they can force undocumented workers into dangerous situations with little to no repercussions. In their mind, they can hold deportation over the workers’ heads and push them to remove the asbestos without any complaints.
Penalties for the exploitation of undocumented workers can be steep, so why do companies keep doing it?
Because they can.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) statistics have shown that there has been a major decrease in the amount of workplace audits this year. In the first 5 months of 2015, ICE had conducted 181 workplace audits and brought charges against 27 employers. In 2013, more than 3,000 companies were audited and 179 employers were arrested. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) notes that the Obama administration’s “near discontinuation of worksite enforcement means that employers now face very little risk in hiring illegal workers and have little incentive to abide by the law.”
It is clear that our country is at a turning point when it comes to immigration, but big changes may not start happening until after the election in 2016. Regardless of what happens, something needs to be done about companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers and allow them to be exposed to asbestos and other dangerous materials. If the long legacy of asbestos litigation has taught us anything, it’s that no amount of money is worth sacrificing a human life.